NEW YORK, March 26 (JTA) — North American Birthright Israel participants are more likely to be involved in Jewish groups and Jewish learning than their peers who did not go to Israel, according to a new study. And one year after the trip, levels of commitment and enthusiasm for Jewish life and Israel did not drop significantly from the levels three months after the trip. But while there are noticeable differences between Birthright alumni and their peers when it comes to attitudes about Judaism and Israel and involvement in campus activities, for the most part the program does not appear to have made a difference on participants´ actual behavior. According to the study, Birthright alumni are no more likely to observe Jewish rituals or holidays or attend synagogue than non-participants, and only a minority of the alumni report they "often" participate in Jewish activities or Jewish learning. The new study of the first Birthright cohort was commissioned by Birthright and was conducted by Brandeis University´s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Now in its third year, Birthright Israel has sent 28,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel from around the world. The program — which has largely been greeted enthusiastically — aims to get young Jews, especially those less affiliated, more interested in their heritage. Most alumni rave about the trips, particularly in the immediate aftermath. However, many in the Jewish community have long been concerned that the effect of the trip would wear off with time, particularly if Jewish organizations do not do enough to engage the newly excited alumni. "The impact of Birthright Israel on participants´ Jewish identities appears to be profound," write the study´s authors. "However, the success of the program poses a challenge for the Jewish community. The community now needs to find ways to transform participants´ inspiration and motivation into Jewish commitment." The study surveyed 1,676 participants and 153 non-participants — the latter group had expressed interest in Birthright trips but did not end up going. Researchers said they believe the responses from the non-participants are similar to the pre-trip attitudes of the participants. Among the findings: • Seventy-six percent of Birthright alumni, compared with 65 percent of non-participants, said being Jewish was "extremely important" in their lives one year after the trip. Three months after the trip, 74 percent of the participants found their Jewishness extremely important. • Ninety-one percent of alumni, compared with 85 percent of non- participants, said it was somewhat or extremely important to raise their children as Jews. • Seventy-seven percent, compared with 72 percent of non-participants, said it was somewhat or extremely important in their life to marry a Jew. • Seventy-three percent of alumni thought it was at least somewhat likely that they would return to Israel in the next two years, with 7 percent reporting they had already returned. Financial concerns were considered the greatest obstacle to returning to Israel, but concerns about safety were also high. • Among students, 49 percent of alumni reported they often or occasionally engaged in campus Jewish activities, compared with 32 percent of non-participants. • Birthright alumni were not significantly more likely to engage in ritual observance, such as attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur or keeping kosher than were non-participants. They also were no more likely to have close Jewish friends than were non-participants. • Birthright alumni who were not in college were less likely than those who were students to take courses in Jewish subjects, take on leadership roles in Jewish organizations or participate in social networks of other Birthright alumni. Since the intifada began in fall of 2000, Birthright participants have tended to be older on average, with more 20-somethings — who are less influenced by skittish parents — going than the college students who dominated the program in its first year. Charles Kadushin, one of the authors of the study, said the trip has affected "cardiac Judaism," or the way people feel about Judaism. "Whether you want other things to happen, the jury is out," said Kadushin, who is affiliated with the Cohen Center. "The bottom line on all this is the ball´s in the court of the Jewish community in North America. What are they going to do with this? They´ve gotten attitudinal changes. People feel warmly toward Judaism, toward Israel and are more interested in raising their children as Jews. The question is where are we going to take that now?" Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the largest single provider of Birthright trips, said it would be unrealistic to expect the trips to immediately change the behavior of young Jews. "When you´re dealing with college students who have lots of demands on their time, we´re planting seeds. "We would love them all to be activists, but if they make a decision that brings them closer to the Jewish community based on their Birthright experience that´s a win," he said. "There may not always be a short-term gain, but hopefully there will be a longer-term gain." The study´s authors urge the Jewish community to find diverse ways to engage Birthright alumni and capitalize on their enthusiasm. "It probably means removing a host of barriers — financial and competence-related — to participation in the Jewish community," the authors write. "But it is also likely to entail the creation of new programs that satisfy the need for connection and community nurtured by Birthright Israel." Leonard Saxe, one of the study´s authors and the director of the Cohen Center, said the study shows that after a year, "The participants are just as enthusiastic, just as positive about the trip and the Jewish community as they were when they returned." What´s not yet clear, Saxe said, are the long-term "behavioral changes" Birthright participants might make as a result of their experience. In addition, he said, the study points to the need "to do more with non- student Birthright alumni, especially since they´ve become a much larger percentage of the participants since the intifada."
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Julie Wiener Julie Wiener is a features writer for JTA. Previously, she was the associate editor of The New York Jewish Week, where she wrote about education, food and assorted other topics along with intermarriage.
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